by A.J. Sabine
It’s 5:00 a.m. in the morning. Class XIV and I climb aboard our bus with a mission on our drowsy minds: Capture pictures of the “Big Five.” Let me explain. In South Africa, the “Big Five” include: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and the cape buffalo. With a lurch, the bus moves forward toward Kruger National Park–a 21,000 square kilometer park that the big five call home. Most of us have never, ever been on a safari before. Even the word safari brings to mind images from films like Out of Africa or Tarzan, The Ape Man or for real film buffs, the African Queen. However, nothing prepared me for a 4x4 trek through Kruger National Park.
After a 15-minute ride we arrive at the Numbi Gate. We step off the bus into a brisk, but comfortable morning. In the east, the sun peaks over a distant mountain just as anticipation shakes off what’s left of last night’s sleep. We meet our driver. He’s a burley expresso-colored man who sports a bald head and soft voice. “My name is Macilo [mah-cee-low], and welcome to Kruger National Park.” After a few rules of the road, like “Don’t whistle at the rhino…” and other information, it’s time to load up into three green converted pick-ups, with open-air, stadium style seats. The excitement builds as the grey-orange sky looks down upon us. We climb aboard. We bounce around dozens of questions as we squeeze into our seats: what will we see first? In short order, our guide let out the clutch and we were engaged with Kruger!
To write about a place like Kruger National Park without pictures, is like trying to explain what music sounds like to a deaf person. There is no way to describe it—you have to see it for yourself! I encourage you to check out Jim Monroe’s pictures. Kruger National Park is a treasure for someone like me who loves being outdoors, nature and adventure! From hornbills to hippos, Kruger spills over with sights and sounds you just have to experience! Sure, South Africa is not like flying to Detroit or tailgating at the Tiger game. However, if you’d like to see baboons or zebras in their NEIGHBORHOOD there is no place like Kruger.
If you’re patient and have a sharp eye, you too can spot the big five. On this trek through the park, I personally observed hundreds of different species of wildlife such as impala, rollers, elephants, wild dogs, etc. In fact, a small group of impala found us after about ten minutes! Finding the elusive leopard was a challenge. However, we heard a rumor that Delta Bank Loan Officer Lee Fairchild “tracked” a leopard in a tree about 1000 yards away from our position. Given the fact that we could not leave our vehicles during the visit and our trained guides failed to spot the most solitary of the big five, I can’t prove that Lee didn’t see a leopard. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was a leopard. Maybe it was a tree branch. Maybe it was the spotted refection of Venus in a wallowing pool… Who knows? What I can tell you is I was able to see (with my own eyes) four of the big five! Not in a cage. Certainly not in a zoo. In the wild! Frankly, once you see a herd of elephants crossing the road in front of you merely six meters from the front your tiny Toyota 4x4…it changes your perspective about these magnificent animals.
Animals aren’t the only intriguing thing about Kruger National Park. This national treasure sports some of the best vistas you can imagine. If you’re a fan of geology, you could very well achieve nirvana because of the impressive rock formations. Much of what I saw there left me in awe. Since I grew up in a place that’s relatively flat, the mountains, hills and valleys of Kruger left me hungry and wanting more.
Please don’t take my word for it. The next time you find yourself between the Limpopo and Crocodile Rivers of South Africa, drive up to the Numbi Gate, hire a guide, and challenge yourself to find the “big five” in the park. Something amazing awaits behind every corner. After all, you never know what will find you…even at 5:00 in the morning.
A.J. Sabine is a Video Specialist for the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation and an alumnus of the LSU Ag Leadership Program.